Felix Rank

Felix Rank

In the run up to the grand opening of Apartamento’s new project space in Berlin, I got to speak to Felix Rank, the German artist behind our first exhibition, FLOWERS. He’s also one of three founders of local Kombucha brand Bouche—the kitchen-based atelier turned large brewery in Marzahn—and the creator of the brightly coloured, organic motifs found on their bottles. FLOWERS presents a limited-edition colouring book alongside a collection of Felix’s delicate ceramic work in a similar vein to his drawings, translating his signature floral forms into bookends made specially for our collaboration—and very carefully, a sensibility in his art that, on sitting down to chat with him, clearly imitates life.
Having taken his first steps into the creative world through graphics, both studying and then practicing professionally, Felix found the environment of design studios wasn’t a particularly good setting for him to grow in. In 2019, with the inception of their kombucha venture, Felix and his friends were able to build the type of creative environment which allowed him to express his voice and blossom. Learning by doing instead of learning by knowing, and enjoying the process of building up to something seem to form the general direction for his life now—which will come in handy as he prepares for some big life changes, with a new family member on the way.
While he waits, I called him at his apartment in the Wedding district of Berlin to discuss the upcoming show, his love for cartoons, and how to stabilise kombucha with a fish pool thermometer and a computer fan, among other things.

Apartamento Magazine - Felix Rank

Where did you grow up?

In quite a small city called Leonberg, with 48,000 inhabitants. It’s 15 minutes away from Stuttgart by car. I grew up, went through school, and did my civil service there, then I went to Karlsruhe to become a teacher, but dropped out after three semesters. I’d thought about doing graphic design, but I wasn’t accepted at the universities I applied to. I got the pressure from home to study something, so I was like ‘OK, what can I do?’ When I did social service, I worked together with kids and realised it was something I liked doing. My problem was that I hated school—apart from its role as an institute to socialise—and felt super frustrated by other students that had chosen to become a teacher for safety. I guess I thought it might be good to be a teacher who has a different perspective on school.

How come you hated school? 

I think I didn’t fit into the education system. People try to put you into a structure with expectations, certain things that are right or wrong. Many people don’t fit into it, and I was never really good so I was forced to learn and that just made it even worse. I somehow got through it, I didn’t have to do any extra years because I had people who helped me, but I still have bad dreams about doing my exams. Anyway, after I left teaching I enrolled in graphic design, although I had no idea what graphic design really was, I just wanted to do something creative. In school I was only good at drawing and doing sports.

Apartamento Magazine - Felix Rank

Where did you study graphics?

I studied in Mainz—next to Frankfurt—with Yannic Poepperling, one of the founders of Bouche. The concept of studies was like in the Netherlands: at the very beginning you do everything—photography, illustration, typography, and graphic design—and then you can focus on whatever you want to do. I started with the idea of doing illustration, but then I realised how hard it is to survive as an illustrator, so I switched to graphic design. I also didn’t find my real path in it, I was very insecure about my skills and about being a creative, as I felt it was too close to my own personality. I was always shifting around. For my bachelor’s thesis, again I wanted to do something more free and artistic, so I collaborated with Timothy Schaumburg, who just photographed my place for this story, to produce work that mixed photography and painting together. This was a relief for me because by taking a step back, I found out how I want to work. We lived in an old mill in Italy for a few weeks, coming up with and producing lots of ideas. Just thinking about production helped me a lot, not overthinking too much. Then I went to Berlin. My plan was to do 50/50 between graphic design and arts—painting or ceramics—but I fell into a crisis. I didn’t feel comfortable with the work ethic in studios and I was struggling a lot, I was in constant panic mode, I had anxiety. I wasn’t capable of doing stuff and pushed everything away, so in turn this affected my work as an artist. There were moments where I could paint and do ceramics, and it helped me, like deep therapy. On the other hand my work wasn’t ending up in any shows, I struggled seeing myself like this, basically being an artist in my free time. So, there were phases of being productive and phases of self-doubt.

It’s difficult not to struggle with graphic design, there’s something very subjective about it that often isn’t taken into account. It gets treated almost like a science, but the decision you want to take is never the decision that someone else would make. And when you’re working for someone, it’s tricky to meet their expectations.

You project and speculate about what they think the right thing to do is. I didn’t feel free, I couldn’t be that communication person who sets the direction. The clients always chose the worst routes I suggested, and that just stressed me out. When we started our kombucha brewery journey, the thought of doing something which has nothing to do with graphic design or arts at all, something completely different, was super relieving. I ended up taking care of the creative parts of it, but in a completely new setting. Doing graphic design without thinking about graphic design.

Sounds like you found a place where you could be creative, expressing and fulfilling this desire of making art. Now that you’re doing something that you enjoy, what would your 15-year-old self think?

I don’t know what my expectations were of what I’d be today, I didn’t have a plan for my career. I was quite naïve, but I thought I would have a van and would be travelling around, a romantic cliché of a free guy or whatever. Maybe an artist, but I think that developed later.

Apartamento Magazine - Felix Rank

Did you say you love nature?

I didn’t, but I do. If I have the time, I try to be outside as much as possible. I didn’t have any money, so I always went camping. I like taking the car and driving out for an hour or two and finding a place next to a forest, just a tent, with my girlfriend or my friends, and then spending a week somewhere. You can feel like you’re on a completely different planet. It’s a matter of perspective and getting out of daily routines. And, for people who live in cities, who wouldn’t say that nature is a place for calming down, putting things into perspective, and making your mind less hectic?

I still have the feeling that living outside of the city would be a better choice. The thing with living in the countryside is that you have to handle people who tend to have more conservative perspectives. It’s not that I have anything against ‘other’ views—I appreciate a heterogeneous society that also questions my opinions. But it gets difficult if the majority is conservative in a way that there is no acceptance for different ways of living. Plus, it’s also hard to integrate into sworn communities. What I like about the city is the diversity. They’re generalisations, but if there could be a mix of both, it would be perfect.

Apartamento Magazine - Felix Rank

What’s with the flowers for Bouche’s designs? Is there a link between the flowers and the making of the kombucha?

No, there isn’t a direct link, but everybody loves flowers. The variety of flowers can reflect the variety of flavours kombucha offers, so in a way there’s a link between Bouche’s design and its taste. I chose flowers as a main graphical motif because they are so diverse. The flavour and then the form of the flowers can correlate to different things. The idea was to represent flavour through the variety and complexity of flowers that are on earth. When I’m outside, I take photos of flower shapes I like, but when I draw them, I don’t look for the photo I took. It’s just getting into a flow of sketching. Then I do 20 sketches just to realise the first one was the best one.

Talk me through the whole process.

It starts with sketching. I start with drawings and then I do physical cut-outs, not digital, because, as I mentioned before, there’s a difference if you auto trace a sketch, it looks different because you’re not as precise as a computer, it gets shaky and you add forms that aren’t meant to be in it. And then I scan those cut-outs, digitalise them. Here and there I do recompose them because sometimes they’re too nice, sometimes I want to put some extra mistakes in. I want to get the symmetry right, but still slightly keep that look of a spontaneous sketch.

Apartamento Magazine - Felix Rank

You said you were good at drawing at school, did you do it a lot as a kid?

Yes. I was super interested in cartoons. I think the initial thing was Loriot—he was a German comedian, but he also drew cartoons, people with big noses. Then there was another German cartoon artist called Brösel, he does Werner, a character who is a plumber and loves motorbikes and grotesque big noses. I also read comics from Belgium, especially Gaston by André Franquin. I had a library pass mostly to borrow cartoons. I was hooked by that. And this brought me into drawing my own cartoons.

And how did you start doing ceramics? Is it connected to your drawings?

What brings all that together is that I’m interested in things which aren’t over-designed. This is what drives me, that big topic of imperfect perfection, that mistakes make things beautiful and to see failure as a good thing—although sometimes failure is just painful. I do easy shapes or things that look a bit quirky. I like the designs done by amateurs most because they don’t overthink things, they don’t worry about the reception of their work or how they got taught things should look.

In graphic design, I dipped into the scene and I knew the best designers, so that also put a lot of pressure on my shoulders. When you get into a new field where you’re not an expert, you don’t get that fear that you could do something wrong because you just do the things and you find joy. If we’d known how to build up a brewery with friends, we might not have done it, but we were so foolish in what we were doing and just went with it. This is the main thing I’ve taken away from the experience. I hadn’t done much clay work before either. I’d just done one vase before, for a group exhibition in Milwaukee.

Apartamento Magazine - Felix Rank
Vulcania, exhibited at Goodhopehouse, Galerie Kenilworth, Milwaukee, 2018.

What was the exhibition about?

When I moved to Berlin, some other people moved there at the same time. Yannic as well, friends of his who’d also come from the art world, and we came together in one complex with studios that we shared together. There we met Walker Brengel, who is another one of the Bouche founders—we became friends and had a big exchange. He comes from the States, and we had the chance to make an art show in the US. I made a vase with two lips for pouring, whereas you normally just have one. The object itself is super hard to handle because it’s too wide to grab with one hand. The exhibition gave me the freedom to do something I didn’t understand so well, to get a feeling for it and then learn by doing it.

When did you start really getting into ceramics and how often do you do make them?

The first works I did for FLOWERS, I was on a vacation trip and when I brought them back, they were all broken. Then I had another session in my apartment where I thought, ‘Yeah, now I’ve found the way’, and failed again. When I started there were a lot of failures. Some shapes I did four times. Then at some point I went to a ceramic shop, talked to the people, and then I built a construction so the pieces could dry without breaking. I work on it at the weekends or after work. Whenever I have the time to do it, I go into the basement and work on them.

Is the basement at home or at work?

Yeah, at work. It’s in the brewery. It was the easiest way because at home, the ceramics are so fragile that I can’t move them.

Apartamento Magazine - Felix Rank
Apartamento Magazine - Felix Rank

Is there a relationship between the flower drawings and the vase you made? 

The super simple and naïve direction of them. In painting, I was interested in exploring my own struggle, so it’s also the output of that. I was interested in how people connect with each other as well. Relationships can be so fragile. The idea was having something solid to grab to pull all this together. The show was around 2018, and at that time we already had the tendency in society to get into bubbles and split away. People don’t talk enough with each other. It’s hard to have different points of views and still get things done together. It should be possible, even if you don’t have the same opinion. My problem is that I can’t stand conflicts, I always want to have harmony.

Are the pieces that you’ve been working on for the exhibition related to this theme?

I don’t want to put a big concept over it. I wanted to find a link to Apartamento, it being a publishing house, and me being curious about interiors and objects. It’s interesting though that the bookend I made isn’t a functional object at all. It’s too fragile, if you put too much on it, it’ll break. So you could also link it to personal conflict, fragility, and conversation.

Apartamento Magazine - Felix Rank
Process photography by Yannic Pöpperling.
Apartamento Magazine - Felix Rank
Process photography by Yannic Pöpperling.
Apartamento Magazine - Felix Rank
Process photography by Yannic Pöpperling.
Apartamento Magazine - Felix Rank
Process photography by Yannic Pöpperling.
Apartamento Magazine - Felix Rank
Process photography by Yannic Pöpperling.
Apartamento Magazine - Felix Rank
Process photography by Yannic Pöpperling.

I want to know more about the process of getting started with the brewery.

That exhibition that we did was also the starting point of doing kombucha. It sounds like a stupid founder’s myth, but Yannic and I got to know kombucha when we were in the States and we thought, ‘We have to do it, nobody is doing it’. When we came back, all of our girlfriends said, ‘Yes, kombucha. My mum did it’ or, ‘My grandmother did it’, but that’s a different story.

We started super basic brewing in our kitchen in small jars, having some idea of why things weren’t working out, but just assuming things without knowing shit about them. When Walker’s kitchen got too small, we went to our studio. We bought 30-litre buckets and did the first brewing there. I took the biggest pot from my apartment to make even more. So we were slowly scaling up.

We later realised the temperatures weren’t stable. To keep them more stable, we installed heating plates into an old fridge we had, with a thermometer for fish pools and a sensor and a computer fan. It was super DIY. Next, we would go into Facebook groups about kombucha to understand why things weren’t working as we expected. There we realised that what people wrote wasn’t always true or that they were also amateurs that didn’t have any idea. From that point, Walker started reading papers and more trusted blogs about kombucha or about fermentation, wine production, and beer production.

Apartamento Magazine - Felix Rank

So you started doing kombucha with your friends while you were still working at the studio. I’m curious to know about this transition.

At the beginning we were just curious about it, because fermentation is a nice thing, but at some point, we were like, ‘Where is this leading?’ It was just the cliché of three dudes having a great idea doing a lemonade thing. ‘Do we just want to do it for our friends and us and just as a hobby, or should we make it more professional?’ 

As I mentioned before, I was super frustrated about the art world and the world of graphic design. I also saw my friends who worked at a higher level with big institutions struggling to make a living. We were seeing that so many people who wanted to be professional in the art world didn’t make it, that there are no rules in the art market. Against our expectation that art is the freest territory, art isn’t democratic, in the end.

Yes, it’s ruled by economy.

By economy, by some people in big institutions, and collectors. It’s a bit like playing blackjack. Going back to the transition, I always worked as a freelancer in different design studios, it was very badly paid and I also didn’t enjoy it, so at some point we made the decision, ‘OK. Let’s start it’. At the beginning I was pushing for it the most, and the others were like, ‘No, I’m not sure. I’m not sure’. And then I decided to start a full-time job as a graphic designer at Boros, the collector who also runs a graphic design studio. And shortly before I got started full-time, the others were at that point, ‘OK. Let’s give it a shot’. So we had that talk and decided to start a kombucha brewery in Germany.

In 2019, I was doing two jobs, 40 hours at the studio and in the evening I tried to work on the identity for Bouche, while Walker was taking care of the paper stuff, finding a location, and planning the next steps to scale the business. I lived in the same neighbourhood as Walker and we met in the evenings to talk about what he was doing and what I was doing and what I was thinking about, but still very naïvely. Then, when Covid came, at that point it was clear that I wanted to really try this brewery thing. So I quit the studio.

Apartamento Magazine - Felix Rank

What about Berlin? How long have you been living there? 

I’ve lived in Berlin for seven years now. Before then, I also did an internship here for half a year and I went back to finish my studies in Mainz. I moved back to Berlin again because all my friends were there. Mainz is a nice city, but it feels like it’s always Sunday. And I wanted to be in a more vibrating place, meeting different people and having the art scene. Although I actually didn’t participate so much, I was more in the art studio, which is almost outside of Berlin. The first three summers we spent a lot of time there, not only making art but also being together, going to the lakes, and building barbecues.

This was the most attractive thing about Berlin, there were still spaces for doing stuff like that. There was this old factory and next to the building there was nothing. And that could be filled by people having an idea about making a party, a bonfire, gardening, or whatever. This is now more or less gone. This was a big reason for me to go to Berlin, as for many people. But the more people come, the less Berlin is like Berlin. And yes, it’s changing so fast at the moment. On the other hand, start-ups come to Berlin, people with more money, young entrepreneurs, and people with career and business prospects. So, the spirit of the city will continue to change. I don’t like that, but I can understand that you can’t preserve a status quo. But on the other hand, because of people coming to Berlin who have more money, gastronomy has really developed. It’s a nice mixture. There are over 200 different languages in Berlin, which gives you a good impression of the city’s variety of cooking styles.

Was it easy for you to find the place where you live? I’ve heard it can be very difficult.

Yes, actually it’s super difficult. I was really lucky when I moved to Berlin, I moved together with my girlfriend and after five years in our flat, we got a letter saying that our apartment was going to be sold. I was like, ‘OK. Shit. What to do?’ My barber was on the ground floor in the same house. I told him and he said, ‘My landlord is actually building a new flat on top of an old building, and here’s the number’. I called and we got the apartment. 

The nice thing is that my good friend could also move into the apartment next door. And we also sublet a part of the flat to other friends. Now it’s a whole floor with friends, which rarely happens anymore. It’s now community living, but everybody has their door to close, so it’s a perfect mixture actually.

Apartamento Magazine - Felix Rank

Do you like being at home?

Yeah, in the past I used to like going out. I wasn’t ever that much of a party animal, but I really like going to bars. Then I got diagnosed with a chronic disease about two years ago, and that sucked all my energy. So in the last few years, I’ve mostly been at home. I love being around people, but I can also enjoy being alone. I have a good base of friends and a good relationship with my girlfriend. There’s a safety in that, which makes it easy being alone. If I didn’t have this, it would be a different story. 

Has your relationship with your home changed over the years?

I don’t believe in the idea of minimalism. I understand the idea that your mind gets more settled and more conscious if you don’t have too many things that can irritate you. But I’m a collector somehow. I want to grow my home slowly. I don’t want to have an interior plan, buy everything at once, and have my flat done in a month. I built my kitchen with a friend. We started planning it one and a half years ago, and I’m still not done with it. So it’s more of a process. I also like the idea of objects telling stories that are bonded together with memories. And it doesn’t need to be something very special or a design piece—I like having them, but on one hand I can’t afford it and on the other hand finding beauty in something ordinary is more interesting. We’re having a little child in the next few days, so the place is about to change a lot. I’ve got to prepare a lot of shit. There’s quite a lot to do before then.

Amazing! How do you think you’ll manage with work and doing your stuff and having a baby?

Good question. My girlfriend and I are both passionate about our jobs. We’ll try to manage everything as equally as possible, and it’ll work out somehow. Walker and Yannic also have kids. They’re a good base to understand the load that we’ll have.

I have one last question. You’re about to have a very different life, what are your hopes for the future?

That everything will be fine. I’d like to do more stuff like this project because it was really fun to be off the computer and I’d be happy to have more space for my artistic practice. I’d like to get my life more in balance because through my sickness and running a company, I’ve seen my friends and my family too little. I hope there’ll be much more time for them, for my friends, my family, and my future family.

Apartamento Magazine - Felix Rank
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